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Marcus du Sautoy: Busting the myths of maths

  • Published at 06:03 pm November 21st, 2014

Marcus du Sautoy, the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and professor of maths at Oxford University talks about the stories maths tells. He is a pioneer in popularising maths among the younger generation.

The Hay Festival is usually considered a literary arena. How do maths fit into this?

One of the greatest strengths of the Hay Festival is that they realise that literature and storytelling is much broader than just the conventional fiction you might get at a literary festival. Science and mathematics have amazing stories to tell.

Personally I feel maths is its own box of mysteries...

Yes maths has its own mysteries. In a way I feel that I am telling stories when I am doing mathematics and my characters are numbers and shapes.

When you write a piece on mathematics, you take the readers or listeners on a journey of surprise and excitement. These are the same characteristics that one expects in a book – you want to see the characters developing, becoming something else, and you too change with them.

I think people are surprised when they listen to me because they don’t realise that there are quite interesting stories to tell in mathematics.

When we are taught maths in school, we just limit ourselves to 2+2=4.

This is the same with literature, if we teach it to be just about grammar and spelling. But this is the big tragedy with maths education across the world, not just in England or Bangladesh.

We think that we need to teach spellings and grammar before we teach the big story, but I have three children at home and they are learning Shakespeare and romantic poetry. It is difficult, but they can still experience the great works of literature, even though they are just beginners. In mathematics we are not brave enough. We do not show them the Shakespeare of maths.

Do you feel that teaching the history of maths is important?

Yes that’s how I try to write my books – by giving readers a historical narrative, as it helps them to understand where these ideas came from. They need to understand that these ideas aren’t some abstract, God-given ideas.

If you understand the difficulty people historically had in understanding the concept of a number like zero, it will give you a sense of appreciation about your learning process.

Zero emerged from this part of the world, something we are quite proud of...

I think it’s absolutely right to celebrate the mathematics that were part of your culture.

You may be surprised to know that some of the very early forms of calculus, which today is very important to any engineer or scientist, were being done in this part of the world before Newton was doing it in England. I actually did a programme with BBC about the history of mathematics, and one of the episodes was about how much mathematics was done in this region.

Most people think that the concepts of maths is a very European invention, but that is a wrong concept.

What do you want the audience to take back from your sessions?

I love coming and talking to literary festivals, because I get to talk to an audience that is not necessarily exposed to scientific and mathematical ideas.

I am hoping that there will be poets and novelists who will enjoy coming to the sessions, because I want them to get a surprise. I want them to say: “Oh, I didn’t realise that this is what mathematics is about.”